Yosemite Series: Day Nine

Day 9: Made in the Shade

Wednesday is the volunteers’ day off. In years past, we have spent our Wednesdays doing such ambitious hikes as Mount Dana, Mount Hoffmann, and Four Mile Trail. But two years ago, knowing we had a backpacking trip ahead of us, tacked onto the end of the work week, we decided to take it easy. One of the other volunteers lent us his inflatable raft. We took the shuttle bus all the way to Happy Isles, and found a spot to put in near Sugar Pine bridge. The water was so low we were sitting on rocks for much of the time, but we did manage to make our way all the way to our home base, just past Sentinel Beach.

This year, having already worked hard on our backpacking trip, and with the exceptional heat (today’s high forecast to be 103), we have a very unambitious agenda. We get on our bikes and see if we can catch the ranger program at 9:30. Turns out it is cancelled. We head just beyond the Yosemite Museum to the Yosemite Cemetery. I never knew there was a cemetery until Ranger Karen mentioned yesterday that the only sequoia trees in the Valley are the ones planted around the tombstone of Galen Clark, Yosemite’s first park ranger.

There are about a dozen narrow wooden planks with single-word markers saying, “Brother”, “Sister”, and “Mary”. There are also some actual tombstones with carved full names and years. Galen Clark’s is the only one with trees – four of them – planted around it. Surrounding the graveyard are houses, which appear to be residences for park employees. I’m not sure I’d want to live in these particular houses, which are nicely sized, but positioned in this eerily deserted part of the park. There is solitude, peace, and undisturbed wilderness. And then there is the feeling of a cemetery.

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We have already seen all of the movies playing in the Yosemite Theater on prior visits (the trailer to the Ken Burns documentary, and a very similar movie with a similar title,  which speaks to the “spirit of Yosemite”). So we take a walk through the Museum, which I find out has different exhibits every year. There are pieces of art I have not seen before. Some colorful abstract oil paintings of El Capitan. An old illustrated map poster of Yosemite Valley, back when there was a zoo in the park! An old Donald Duck cartoon warning of the dangers of feeding the bears. A Bierstadt nighttime landscape painting, showing the glow of the full moon on the meadows, and a small campfire in the foreground.

We also take a repeat walk through the exhibit in the Visitor Center, which gives a geologic and cultural history of Yosemite. We notice that the bronzed topographical relief map that normally sits in the lobby is gone. I later find out that it is being restored. All those years of people touching it has taken its toll.

I am always perplexed by the way that the written interpretations at our national parks — particularly the Grand Canyon and Yosemite — mention the decimation of the native people who inhabited these places for thousands of years before European and early American settlers arrived. It is matter-of-fact and clinical. It is never lost on me that I am standing inside a visitor center, with air conditioning, reading these signs, which are written in English. I can take a picture of these signs with my phone.

And yet, what I am reading is the fact that we have created an attraction out of a place that was inhabited, stewarded, harvested, and related to in an entirely different way for millennia. The native people left the land pristine for that many years, and built cultures within these landscapes. What will we leave behind? And how quickly will we alter the landscapes with what we make, how we enjoy ourselves, and what we demand of the resources available to us? I always leave wondering how it is that our fellow humans managed to live in these majestic, awe-inspiring landscapes for so many years, to have families and ceremonies and wars and peace, and to have left the land largely intact. What can we learn from a deeper wondering, a deeper examination of the tracks we leave behind, from all the ways we have come to live?

We take our lunch on a shaded bench, facing the Yosemite Theater, in the small courtyard behind the Visitor Center. Looking up, I see a spire along the face of Yosemite Falls that I have never seen from this angle. I can see how it does not sit against the wall, but is truly a spire, jutting out like an extended finger into the sky.

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Abstract sketch of spire and Upper Yosemite Falls

We take our bikes and head around the Valley loop trail, first passing the Ahwahnee Hotel (now named the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, for reasons you can read about elsewhere), then heading toward Mirror Lake. We see the rock walls above which we were backpacking just a few days earlier. We see the trickle of water down the face of Royal Arches, and we know the source of it — the “glorified puddle” where we pumped out two of our days’ water supply. We see the densely forested area that obscures Lehamite Creek. We see Washington Column, which towers over us now, but is dwarfed by Indian Ridge, which rises up behind it. North Dome, whose gradually inclined surface we camped on, is a bump on the top of a hulking mass of granite, whose top we can barely discern between the tops of trees, from where we are on the bike trail.

We pass the rushing section of the Merced River just below Happy Isles. There is a pile of bikes parked at the trailhead for the Mist Trail. I cannot imagine hiking uphill on a day this hot. But apparently plenty of people are doing it.

We weave our way through Curry Village parking lot and follow the trail across from Housekeeping Camp, passing LeConte Memorial Lodge (now also renamed the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center), crossing the street at Sentinel Bridge, heading across Cook’s Meadow again, passing Swinging Bridge, and bumping along the sandy dirt on the side of the road where there is no official bike path, finally arriving at our campground.

My morning and bedtime routines have me contemplating the differences between group camping and backpacking. I have had the idea for two illustrations in my head for the past couple of days, and I finally get them down on paper.

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Layout of group campground
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Layout of a backcountry campsite

In the afternoon, we take our inflatable mattresses out to the river. Floating with the current is easy. I follow a baby duckling who is grazing along the riverbanks, using quick fluttering movements of its bill to serve as a sieve along the grasses as he (or she) swims. When it is time to head back to our starting point, I learn how powerful the river’s seemingly gentle current is. I am positioned at a mechanical disadvantage, lying on my back. My body is reclined like a luge sledder, my arms flailing in the water like two tiny toothpicks trying to propel a barge. The wind is in the same direction as the current: against me. I attempt to flip myself onto my belly. This ends with me taking a full body dip in the river. Refreshing, but not the point. The water is not deep, and I could probably walk back if I wanted to. But I am determined to paddle my way home.

It’s more the awkwardness than the fatigue. I wanted to relax in the cool water of the river, not get another workout. When I finally reach the pebbly island where I’ve left my towel and water bottle, I am able to lounge just a bit longer before it is time to report for dinner prep duty.

On the menu tonight is chicken picatta, mushroom risotto, and green salad. Risotto and salad are mine to create, while Mary Lou has the chicken handled. I love making risotto and don’t do it often enough at home. I heard once that the key to a great risotto is the patience to stir it constantly over low heat. I remember the proportions for one cup of arborio rice (one cup of wine, three cups of chicken stock). I now have to scale that up for our crew of twelve hungry volunteers, with three cups of arborio rice. Somehow I nearly make the mistake of using one cup of wine and six cups of chicken stock. I rescue it midway through.

This time I add thinly sliced (almost shaved) red onion to the salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil, and I make the same dressing as Sunday night. The meal is perfectly balanced and delicious once again. Mary Lou and I joke about starting some kind of business where we travel to people’s vacation homes and cook for them. We make a great pair. I trust her completely, and she gives me freedom to create with whatever ingredients are available. And we both enjoy seeing people love what they eat!

See the entire Yosemite sketch and story series here.

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